Antidepressants may be prescribed for dogs

Animals also have depression - and are immobilized with lucky pills

Dogs swallow antidepressants and dolphins are sedated with Valium. Animal rights activists claim that some animals can only be kept in the zoo with the help of sedatives.

A hot summer day in Berlin. I'm in the zoo and watch the polar bear. The imposing animal takes two steps into a passage, stops, and turns around. A few meters in reverse, then a head rocking to the right, then a rocking to the left, and everything starts all over again. And exactly the same, over and over again. The polar bear performs a stereotypical movement pattern, it seems to me. If he were human, one would probably say he has an obsessive-compulsive disorder.

It is quite possible that the neurotic polar bear is simply too warm. Perhaps it also suffers from the fact that its habitat here is only a millionth of the area that its conspecifics in the Arctic have available for themselves. The only thing that is certain is that this behavior cannot be observed in the wild. All zoologists and veterinarians agree on this.

The female panda Meng-Meng, the crowd favorite of the Berlin zoo and model of Chinese panda diplomacy, sometimes goes backwards. That seems to have improved, however, since "habitat-enriching measures" were used to provide more variety in the life of the pandas.

Most of the animals had side effects. For the macaws, the therapy even had to be
canceled due to incompatibility.

Stereotypes are not only a problem for the animals, but also for the zoo management. For animal rights activists, it is precisely these behavioral problems that show that many animals cannot be kept in captivity in a manner appropriate to their species. But what can be done if improved housing conditions do not help? Obviously, psychotropic drugs can be tried.

The veterinarian Benedicta Maria Hellinger did this as part of her doctoral thesis and treated eight behavioral zoo animals with antidepressants. Patients included a gorilla, a polar bear, a brown bear, a hippopotamus, and two macaw parrots. However, this treatment has done little for the animals. Only in the bears was there a temporary improvement in symptoms. In return, most of the animals had side effects. In the case of the macaws, the therapy even had to be discontinued due to intolerance. Antidepressants seem to be unsuitable for treating zoo animal stereotypes.

Zoo managers react irritably

It is undoubtedly more effective to sedate the animals with tranquilizers. Could it be that some animal species can only be kept in the zoo because they are treated with sedatives over the long term to adapt their behavior, as some animal rights activists claim?

No, that's not the case at all, contradicts Christian Wenker, veterinarian at Basel Zoo: “I have a pretty good overview of the situation, I was also president of the European zoo veterinarians. If that were the case, I would be totally against it. It would be completely unacceptable if an animal had to be treated permanently with psychotropic drugs for reasons of keeping ”, says the expert.

Zoo managers in Germany react irritably to inquiries about the systematic use of psychotropic drugs. From the German zoo veterinary profession I get a rather aggressively formulated position paper. In the declaration "Use of psychotropic drugs in modern zoo animal medicine - sensible and lawful use for our animals!" German veterinarians defend themselves against the recurring accusation that their zoo and wild animals are being immobilized with psychotropic drugs for keeping purposes.

"Huge quantities of tranquilizers are stored in the feed kitchens, which are administered by the keepers as they see fit."

The general suspicion that animals are generally and long-term kept under tranquilizers and neuroleptics in the zoo represents a “defamation of the profession of zoo veterinarians”. Rather, one refers to one's own expertise and emphasizes that psychotropic drugs are only administered in “medically justified individual cases”. And anyway: There is no cause for concern anyway, because "the technically correct use of psychotropic drugs is part of the timely and responsible veterinary care of (zoo) animals".

The number of unreported cases in the use of psychotropic drugs for zoo-keeping ticks is likely to be high. Among other things, because animal keepers sometimes administer Valium and Co. on their own, for example to sedate an acutely aggressive animal. At least this is what the psychologist and animal rights activist Colin Goldner claims in his book “Lifelong behind bars”: “According to the unanimous statement of insiders, there are sometimes huge amounts of diazepam and / or other tranquilizers stored in the feed kitchens of the individual districts, which the keepers say as they see fit : can be administered without a veterinary prescription. " Here, too, Christian Wenker from Basel Zoo denies: “It's certainly not the case here in Switzerland. It is clearly regulated by law that everything must be prescribed by the veterinarian. We also have strict pharmacy controls. "

Ten grams of Valium per dolphin

It is clear, however, that the transparency of some animal-keeping institutions leaves something to be desired. It was only at the instigation of the Bavarian State Ministry that the Nuremberg zoo was persuaded to disclose the drug administration to its dolphins. The relevant data can now be viewed on the website of the German "Whale and Dolphin Conservation Forum". The report found that in less than five years almost all dolphins were given a total of more than ten grams of diazepam (Valium).

It seems as if the days of the dolphinariums are numbered, at least in Europe. The dolphin lagoon in the Conny-Land amusement park in Thurgau, and with it the last dolphinarium in Switzerland, was closed as early as 2013 after parliament had previously issued a ban on the import of “dolphins and other whale species”.

And last year the then French Environment Minister Ségolène Royal introduced a law that would prohibit the keeping of dolphins and orcas in captivity in France. Veterinarian Wenker, however, is skeptical of keeping bans: “I think the general ban on keeping a certain animal species is not a good thing. Is that the beginning of a general ban on keeping animals? Then what's the next animal species that might be tricky? ”He says.

Is there a danger of anthropomorphism here? - the inadmissible attribution
only properties accessible to humans on animals?

Behavioral pharmacology is also in vogue in pet ownership. If the left alone dog tears up the sofa, the cat no longer does its business where it should, or the budgie pulls its feathers out, the pet is prescribed psychotropic drugs. According to the US psychiatrist Allen Frances, this already affects eight percent of all American dogs. As pet owners increasingly see their pets as real members of the family, there is a greater willingness to humanize them and spend a lot of money on them - especially if the loved one suffers.

Marketing organizations are forecasting $ 9 billion in veterinary drug sales in the U.S. alone in 2019. If you are a pharmacist, you can already be trained as a veterinary pharmacist there. A profession that is still unknown in Switzerland.

The pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly launched the drug Reconcile a few years ago. Indication: Separation anxiety in dogs. The active ingredient is the same that its owner may already be taking: the antidepressant fluoxetine, better known under the trade name Prozac. It is not unlikely that dog and owner will be treated similarly. About twenty percent of the American population already take psychotropic drugs on a regular basis. In Switzerland, around ten percent of the population consumed prescription antidepressants in 2016. However, the dog anti-depressant can be chewed and tastes like beef.

Behind all of this there is a fundamental question: Can dogs actually get depressed? Or is there a danger of anthropomorphism here - the inadmissible attribution of properties only accessible to humans to animals? Behavioral biology, neurosciences and evolutionary anthropology have long since shown that animals have a highly complex inner life, are very likely to dream and have the ability to conceptualize themselves. Behavioral researcher Frans de Waal was able to show that bonobo monkeys are capable of altruism, morality and empathy.

Only schizophrenia does not occur

Scientists have long since stopped discussing whether animals are conscious, but to what extent. It is therefore not surprising that animals can also develop mental disorders that show great similarities to human psychopathology.

The following disorders are discussed in contemporary veterinary psychiatry: eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety and panic disorders, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder. Actually only schizophrenia and manic-depressive illnesses seem to be absent in the animal kingdom.

Sumo, the mixed breed dog of France's ex-President Jacques Chirac, was also treated with an antidepressant by the vet. After its prominent owner lost his re-election to Nicolas Sarkozy and sumo had to move out of the Élysée Palace, the now lethargic dog suffered from sleep disorders, suffered from anorexia and became irritable. Symptoms that suggest the onset of depression in humans. However, the antidepressant did not really help in this case either. After the Maltese bit the ex-president twice, he was relocated to a farm.

But then the country life seems to have done Sumo good. In any case, nothing is known of any further bite attacks.

Felix Hasler is research assistant at the Berlin School of Mind and Brain at the Humboldt University in Berlin and visiting scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig.